Review of Thomas Sowell’s “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”

Thomas Sowell, a prolific and highly respected economist, wrote Black Rednecks and White Liberals in 2005, but I have only recently encountered and read it.  I wish I had read it earlier, but better late than never. The book is a collection of six essays on the role and dominance of culture over race in the experience of black Americans and other racial groups (Germans, Lebanese, Chinese, Jews, and other middlemen minorities). Like most good U of Chicago economists, he builds his arguments empirically. Digesting the book’s rich collection of data is worth the read.

Sowell documents that most slaves, who have existed from almost the beginning of humanity, have not been black, nor has being a slave, as unacceptable as it is in the modern world, necessarily impeded the futures of slaves once freed. Most interestingly, Sowell argues that the self-destructive behavior of America’s black ghetto culture is not genetic but rather the learned bad habits of the “Cracker culture” of the North Britons, Welsh, and Highland and Ulster Scots who immigrated to the American South and were its dominant slave owners. Sowell argues that the income and educational gaps between white and black Americans reflect the perpetuation by “ghetto” blacks of this culture and its remedy must come from blacks.

A review of the book by Neil Shenvi states that:

“Sowell’s first essay, which shares the book’s title, begins with this provocative quote:

‘These people are creating a terrible problem in our cities. They can’t or won’t hold a job, they flout the law constantly and neglect their children, they drink too much and their moral standards would shame an alley cat. For some reason or other, they absolutely refuse to accommodate themselves to any kind of decent, civilized life.

“Sowell continues: ‘This was said in 1956 in Indianapolis, not about blacks or other minorities, but about poor whites from the South… A 1951 survey in Detroit found that white Southerners living there were considered ‘undesirable’ by 21 percent of those surveyed, compared to 13 percent who ranked blacks the same way’.

“Sowell’s main thesis in this essay is that what we know today as ‘black culture’ is actually ‘white redneck culture’ or ‘cracker culture’ which ‘originated not in the South but in those parts of the British Isles from which white Southerners came. That culture long ago died out where it originated in Britain, while surviving in the American South. Then it largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos.’”

Shenvi’s review notes that: “[t]he 1970 census showed that black West Indian families in the New York metropolitan area had 28 percent higher incomes than the families of American blacks. The incomes of second-generation West Indian families living in the same area exceeded that of black families by 58 percent. Neither race or racism can explain such differences. Nor can slavery, since native-born blacks and West Indian blacks both had a history of slavery.”  “A review of Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Sowell’s chapter on “Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies” makes the exact same points and criticism of “modern” education made by my mother who was an elementary school teacher in the 1970s and 80s who believed in teaching basic skills and knowledge to a well-disciplined class. Any student who bullied a fellow student only had a chance to do it once while under the supervision of my mother’s strict disciplinary style. At her request she was assigned to classes with behavior problems and by the end of the year they loved her (as did I).

William Raspberry (1935-2012), one of my favorite Washington Post columnists, who like Sowell was black, wrote in a review of Black Rednecks… “[o]ne thing seems beyond dispute: Maybe we haven’t laid racism to rest, but we have reached the point where what we [i.e., blacks] do matters more than what is done to us. That’s great, good news.”